I will never forget her. She was my first. She was beautiful, graceful, confident, and aware. That soft, light brown hair and those big brown eyes that were so captivating and innocent. I watched her for quite a while, waiting for an opening, for that perfect opportunity when her guard was down. I was pretty sure she didn’t even see me. She certainly had not looked my way or paid me any attention since she got there. I, myself, was a little scared and unsure. This was all new to me, even though I had been thinking about it for years and played this scenario through in my head dozens of times. When it became real, all that mental preparation went out the window. I just wasn’t sure that I could pull the trigger. But, when I did, it was a perfect shot and I had harvested my first deer – a beautiful 120 pound doe.
It is amazing the detail with which you can recall those special memories. On that particular hunt, I can remember the weather, the temperature, exactly where I was, the pre-hunt conversation, and how it all came together. I don’t think I will ever forget the exhilaration and excitement of making the perfect shot and the taking of my first deer. I also cherish that feeling of solemn pride that sets in after you regain control of your faculties. It is never a flippant or dismissive thing to take a life. We are given dominion over the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the air by an indisputable power, but it should never be taken lightly or with disdain. However, you can take pleasure in the harvesting of an animal that is well used in providing nourishment for yourself and others, and that is where the pride comes from; knowing that you did all you could to provide a quick end and that the animal will be well used.
I don’t remember what I had done, but I am sure that whatever it was, I did it and thought I would get away with it. I didn’t, and paid the price that farm boys pay when their dad’s catch them doing things they shouldn’t. I was teary eyed and my rear end ached, but even though I had gotten in trouble and been punished, we were still going fishing. It was raining lightly, but that did not deter us. What made this trip better than most was that we were not fishing at the farm pond this time, but were going down the road to Williams Lake, where we sometimes went for a change of pace. We did not have many bass in our pond, only catfish and bream. If you wanted to catch a bass, you went to Williams Lake – at least in my head.
I was fishing with a hollow, plastic mouse that was white with a black fringe tail. This was a topwater bait that was weedless, which helped because both of the lakes at the Williams farm had milfoil in them that would get tangled on exposed hooks or subsurface baits.
We initially stopped at the back side of the top lake, which is the smaller of the two. There was a small patch of cattails in the southeast corner of the lake that always looked “fishy” to me. While dad was unloading the truck, I grabbed my rod and made a cast that flew wide of my intended mark near the cattail cluster. As my cast landed, my intent was to reel in as quickly as I could and make a better cast. However, dad asked me to come close the truck door since his hands were full. I laid down my rod and did as I was told. When I got back to my rod and started reeling, the line came tight, and I realized that I had a fish on. I had seen my dad and my uncle catch bass before, but I had never caught one myself. When I got it close to the bank I hollered for dad to come and see. It was a small largemouth bass of maybe half a pound. It was a giant to me. My first bass ever! My tears dried up, my butt quit hurting, and I was as proud as I would ever be. I remember the smell of the early summer rain, how clear the lake water was that day, dodging the fire ants that were active after the rain, my own joy at my first bass, and that moment shared with my dad.
I was all by myself. I was thirsty, hot, sweaty, and frustrated, but I dared not leave my post. This was the first dove hunt that I had been allowed to hunt by myself without adult supervision. My father placed me next to a hay bale, gave me one box of 2.5 inch, #7 ½ shot, .410 gauge shells, my single shot H&R shotgun, and instructions to be safe and not to move or leave the area until he came back to get me.
I had fired over half my box of shells and had not hit a thing. I was really good at hitting targets moving straight away from me (think shooting skeet), but had not yet mastered the crossing shot, hence my frustration. There were plenty of birds flying, but none straight away from me, and I had just about given up hitting one of them in the air and decided I would wait for one to land in the trees near me and try to shoot one that way, even though I knew it wasn’t sporting and shouldn’t even be considered. I did not want to go back to the house empty handed. I fired a few more times to no avail and was down to my last 4 or 5 shells. I was mad at the heat, the dust, the hunters that were killing birds, and myself for not being able to hit one. One of dad’s friends came walking up and said he had killed his limit and was leaving the field. He asked if he could sit with me a few minutes just to watch. I really did not want him to, because I knew he would expect me to shoot at birds in range and I knew that I would miss when I did, but he was a grown up, and I was a kid, so I couldn’t say no to such a simple request. Within a couple of minutes, a bird crossed in front of me and rather than take my time, calculate my aim and lead and distance and all of that (like I had been doing all day) I just looked at the bird, pointed my gun and fired without thinking much about it and just knowing it would be a miss. As I dismounted my gun to reload it, the guy beside me said “That was a great shot, especially with a .410”. Then he jumped up and said “I’ve got a good mark on it, I’ll go get it for you”. I was completely astonished. I had hit a bird. Not only hit it, but folded it stone dead. As my adult retriever returned with my bird, I could see that it was easily the largest and most regal of all the dove that had been killed that day, and quite possibly in the history of dove hunting. I didn’t even need to see any of the other harvested birds for this truth to be evident. I also learned one of the most valuable lessons of wingshooting, in that if you think about it, you miss. Your brain works in conjunction with your eyes and hands much more effectively if you remove thought from the process. Focus on the target and let your brain tell hour hands what to do, rather than you trying to make them do what you want.
I killed one other bird that afternoon, but if I’d had more shells, I am confident that I could have gotten more. I did not go back empty handed, and I was never happier with myself than I was at that moment. Once you take your first dove from your own stand, without supervision, you are accepted into the fraternity of hunters that young men who hunt aspire to belong to. I still remember the late summer heat, how dry my mouth was, the frustration of missing, the joy of connecting, the epiphany of wingshooting, and the brass colored sky as the sun waned that afternoon. I remember the calls of the other hunters alerting the field to incoming birds and the laughter and good-natured teasing at a missed bird. It was one of the best days of my life.
I could not believe how cold it was. I had killed 3 ducks in my life, and all of those were sitting on my farm pond. I had never been “duck hunting” with decoys, in a boat, and with people that knew what they were doing. But, I had always wanted to. Waterfowling always seemed so romantic to me, and the birds were so BIG. For someone that is used to dove and quail, a duck seems like big game.
A friend of the family took pity on me and asked me if I would like to go diver hunting with he and some friends. At the time, I did not know what diver hunting meant, but I felt sure we were not going to shoot at people in scuba gear. I borrowed a suitable shotgun from my father, since I did not own a waterfowl gun. He lent me a Browning A5 Magnum that had been shot very rarely. I borrowed some shells from the guy that took me hunting, and we set off to the spot. We were hunting an area of Guntersville Lake known as Eastlake, near the feed mills and barges. It was a great hunting spot because when they loaded barges with grain, some of it would inevitably spill and this attracted the ducks that wanted to eat it.
In particular, the ducks that fed here were diving ducks (divers). These were mainly Greater and Lesser Scaup, known collectively and commonly as Bluebills. There were also a few Redheads and Ringnecks mixed in occasionally. For a 12 year old that had never been on a real duck hunt, the whole scenario was a great adventure. Just getting to ride in a boat to go hunting was an awesome experience. The hunters were dropped off on the bank where we would hunt, and two of the party went and placed the decoys. Because the water was so deep where we were hunting, the decoys were on long lines containing a couple dozen decoys each rather than being on individual lines.
After everything was set-up and the boat was hidden, we took our places beneath the front end of an old barge that had been pushed up on the bank. It put the hunters in shadow, but also subjected them to a very chilly north wind.
Within 5 minutes of setting up, we had a large group of bluebills looking at the decoys. After one pass, they committed to the decoys and 30 birds locked up 15 yards in front of us. It is a sight and a sound that I will never forget and that also cemented my presence among those that call themselves “Waterfowler”. We bagged a 4-man limit of ducks that day, and I am happy to say that I was able to contribute several to the score. I will never forget the men I hunted with, the luxurious feel of the feathers on those ducks, the iridescent purple feathers that covered the Bluebills head, the smell of the feed mills, the clank of the barges, the shouts of the men working the docks, the bite of the north wind, or the steel gray of the overcast January sky.
Mostly, I am thankful that someone who was passionate about the outdoors took the time to invite me and teach me a new way to enjoy the outdoor world. Knowledge gained through experience is important, but knowledge passed down is savored. Please make a difference in someone’s life by sharing your passion for the outdoors with them. I thank God for putting it all here for me to enjoy and share with others. I appreciate all those who have taught me, taken me, supported me, and assisted me in my outdoor pursuits and encourage you to do the same for someone who will carry that torch and pass it on again someday.
Heritage and traditions are lost not because there are no willing recipients of the knowledge, but because those with the knowledge don’t pass it down. We have already lost so much of our southern heritage to social, economic, and lifestyle changes. If you have a particular skill or hobby that is important to your heritage, please don’t let it die with you.